March 21, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- Wake Forest's basketball season ended in a nice microcosm of its entire year: The Demon Deacons showed their talent in the ACC Tournament, then returned to their disinterested selves in the NIT.
The ACC Tournament, held in nearby Greensboro, was full of backhanded compliments for Wake. Florida State started the trend by repeatedly calling the Deacons "the best last-place team in the country" and similar things. Of course, the flipside of that is something along the lines of: "This team is way too talented to have finished in last place."
Wake bore that out by winning two games in Greensboro and leading top-seeded Duke at halftime before folding down the stretch. The praise continued, but really, those kind words just pointed out that something went badly wrong this season. If Wake could play this way, and other teams thought this much of the Deacs, then what in the world took them straight to the ACC cellar?
The second half against Duke and the NIT loss at Minnesota filled in those blanks, in case anyone had really forgotten.
Point guard has been Wake's biggest tactical problem all year, and it reared up again in the postseason. When Duke's guards finally stopped the Demon Deacons' attack at halfcourt and made them run plays, the fun was over. Against Minnesota, the Deacons threw the ball all over the place but couldn't get it in to senior center Eric Williams. That was another familiar theme to the season.
Overall, of course, the biggest problem this year has been the team's up-and-down intensity level. That showed up throughout March as well.
Earlier in ACC Tournament play, perhaps inspired by the imminent end of their season or by getting the right draw, the Deacons showed fire not seen since November.
However, with eight minutes left against Duke, the Deacs were done. They were walking up and down the court, and they wouldn't utter a whimper for the rest of the game. Against Minnesota, Wake never even showed up, despite coach Skip Prosser's public warnings earlier in the week.
In the end, senior Trent Strickland said: "To be honest, that's what kept us alive in the ACC Tournament, the defense and the rebounding. Tonight we just didn't have it in us, or we didn't want to bring it out of us."
Those two phrases also could be applied to the whole season and, really, to the entire senior class. We'll never know which of those phrases was the problem, or perhaps it was a combination, but in the end, it really didn't matter.
Whatever it was, it led to disappointment.
RETURNING PLAYERS SHOWED SPARKS
If you're looking for a bright spot for Wake Forest basketball, take heart in the fact that some of the players the Demon Deacons will count on next year finally showed some life down the stretch.
Junior center Kyle Visser had seven rebounds against N.C. State in the regular-season finale, then six points and 10 rebounds against the Wolfpack in the ACC Tournament. Junior guard Michael Drum had nine points and four assists, then 12 points and five assists, in the two State games. He added 10 points against Florida State.
Freshman forward Kevin Swinton had five points and five rebounds against FSU and seven points and five rebounds against Minnesota. Freshman forward Cameron Stanley had 10 points against Boston College and in both State games. He also averaged four rebounds in the two games against the Pack, and he added four steals in the ACC Tournament game.
While freshman guards Harvey Hale and Shamaine Dukes didn't close the season well, Prosser still had to be encouraged by some of the above performances. Stanley, a redshirt freshman, may have been the biggest surprise. After showing almost nothing in the early season, he looked -- at times -- like someone who could become a productive member of the regular rotation.
BILLINGS OFFERS WINNING BACKGROUND
The Wake Forest football team added Tim Billings to its coaching ranks, hiring him to replace Kevin Sherman (now at Virginia Tech) at the wide receivers slot.
A quick glance at Billings' resume might get Wake fans excited about what he could bring to Wake's vanilla passing attack, but the Oklahoma and Marshall references may be a bit deceiving.
Billings was at Oklahoma during the Barry Switzer days, when the Sooners ran it on almost every play. He was at Marshall during the height of its passing success, but Billings was the defensive coordinator for the Thundering Herd.
At least Billings did throw it as the head coach at Southeast Missouri State, where he was before the Deacons hired him. In the final five years of his six there, Billings' teams averaged at least 254 yards per game through the air.
Billings also offers a good deal of winning experience: three national championships, five conference championships, six bowl games and six I-AA playoff teams.
Wake coach Jim Grobe also said that Billings will bring expertise to the special teams, where Wake needed some help. The Deacons are one of the few ACC teams that don't have a special teams-only coach, so they rely on all of their assistants to lend a hand in that area.
However, last year, Southeast Missouri State was last in the Ohio Valley Conference in kickoff returns and next-to-last in punt returns. Those numbers sound a lot like Wake's.
If nothing else, Wake should benefit from bringing some new blood into the coaching staff. While the group's famous loyalty to each other is admirable and has plenty of benefits, it also can stagnate the program.
FIELDTURF PLAN MOVES SPRING GAME
Wake Forest will play its spring football game on the practice field on campus, because Groves Stadium is getting its playing surface re-done.
The Demon Deacons are involved in a 10-year renovation plan for Groves, and this spring the grass at Groves will be replaced by FieldTurf.
The Groves surface has been spotty in the past, and opposing players have criticized it. Florida State has been particularly vocal, including former tailback Greg Jones after injuring his knee there in 2002. In 2004, FSU quarterback Wyatt Sexton said: "That field up there is horrible. The grass is all tore up, and there's potholes everywhere. It's a very injury-prone type of field."
Wake had tried re-sodding, without much success, and it was looking at a very expensive re-do by considering a plan to tear it down to the core. Instead, it chose to put in FieldTurf, which it has on one of its practice fields. FieldTurf is an artificial surface that's much more like real grass, but it's also stable, resilient and easy to drain.
Numerous NFL and college teams have gone to FieldTurf in the last five years. The Wake players are among those who have been very much in favor of the change.